Wild Swims

12Aug10

Beneath the pyramid of Stob Dearg, a curtain of light squall came in from the direction of Loch Linnhe.

Rusted tin cans of Heinz 57 and used Kleenex was caught in heather and alongside the rounded boulders of River Coupall, a Quechua tent was ripped and left to the elements. Magnificent Glencoe was becoming a wasteland.

I had seen this model of tent a few weeks before in Decathlon where I’d picked up a wetsuit for my first proper wild swims; a pursuit to find some enticing but interesting lochs, rockpools and rivers in Argyll.

On our way north, we passed a couple getting hitched in the Blacksmith’s at Gretna Green, then Lockerbie where Pan Am 103 fell to earth. Camper vans looking like Group Four prison vans vied for the same annoyance with caravans – trailing along the A-roads behind a plenitude of Ford Focus rental cars from Glasgow, stacking everyone behind like the safety car in the Hungarian Grand Prix.

Gulfstream bathing isn’t thorax-squeezingly cold in summer but my self-imposed condition of these swims was that they should be fresh, not salty. Loch Ness was actually a contender but frankly, the oily scum lapping near Urquhart Castle put me right off and we drove on instead up the A86 towards Newtonmore looking for more spectacular surface tensions.

Stretches like Loch Laggan looked clean if dull. But then, across a bridge on the driver’s side I saw some falls and a dark soup of brackish water that the map confirmed as the Strath Mashie on its journey down from Beinn Eilde near the Dalwhinnie distillery. Thrashing about in water that resembled single malt whiskey turned my hands jaundice yellow. And back on the road, a million well-being endorphins coursed around my body to lift it above all other stimulant.

Plunging into the amniotic fluid of natural waters was what Roger Deakin recounted in his brilliant book Waterlog, a frog’s-eye reflection for the wild swimmer around Britain. Inspired by John Cheever’s The Swimmer and keen bather Orwell’s retreat to Jura to write a book he called The Last Man in Europe, Waterlog has become my constant literary companion 50 years after I last swam in the womb.

Over the next week, I swam in the River Etive; Glencoe Lochan; Lismore Lochan – all well known to the touring amphibian – and each one better than the next.

I really want to report on the fifth and last location, but I’m afraid for this place. Out west on Moidart, an explorer’s drive again put us by accident past magical waters. Here was a corner of Scotland so private – without wrappers, dog ends nor humanoid tourism that fills up our idylls like the Lidl car park at Fort William. The charabancs don’t make it out this far out but the irony of travel writing still plays on my mind, so annoyingly secretive I remain.

I edged under the bridge and sank into the flowing mire where lightly frothy eddies whirled about the rocky bank and was pulled out into a wide bend. When I reached my aquatic limit I hauled myself up on to a fishing jetty, feeling subversive enough to fear an estate bailiff lassoing me out. Swimming outdoors makes one in tune with the natural world but though I leave only ripples and a temporary puddle, still felt out of sync with the law.

On page 147 of Waterlog, Deakin writes that apart from the proboscis monkey, hairless humans are the only apes that take to the water for sheer joy. We evolved from the slime and we relish the return by sharing the liquidity with fearless wildlife that otherwise sees us as hostile. Deakin writes of Kingfishers diving in front of him and dragonflies buzzing above his head, all worthy of our protection and respect.

As wildlife and nature clashes with the selfish tourist, the story of Big Boy came to mind as we drove south over Rannoch Moor. With an addiction for scraps from outdoor snack bar owner MacDonald and his punters, the stag inched ever closer to the migrant humanity alongside the A82. So locally famous did he become that one Hogmanay, the beast was shot several times by air gun-toting juveniles and is now a tragic, posthumous print on the same tourist cafe trailer.

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